Title: Little Miss Sunshine
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenwriters: Michael Arndt
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear
I saw some of the late, lamented Arrested Development in Little Miss Sunshine. Since no one watched Arrested Development, this probably means little or nothing to most of you, but rest assured that it is the highest of praise, as the show is one of the funniest in history. And while the film, because of time limitations and the attendant need for a compact plot, can’t maintain the fever pitch of oddball brilliance sustained throughout every episode of Arrested Development, many of the same comedic instincts dominate its screenplay.
Greg Kinnear’s Richard, for example, is the sort of deranged character who would be right at home amidst Development‘s bluth clan. A lower-class father of two hung up on take-charge-of-your-life self-help maxims, he attempts to indoctrinate his children — teenage Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has given up speaking for mysterious reasons, and 7 year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), uncommonly well-adjusted despite an affinity for kids’ beauty pageants — with countless pearls of wisdom to the effect of “second place is the first loser.” At one point he tells his daughter not to apologize because “it’s a sign of weakness.” When she orders ice cream at a restaurant, he warns her that ice cream will make her fat, dashing her chances at becoming Miss America.
That last scene — a showstopper — could have been played for an easy laugh. And while it gets a laugh, what’s remarkable is the way Olive’s family defiantly rallies around her, emphatically tearing into the ice cream until the little girl can’t resist digging in herself. It’s a funny scene that naturally, fluidly turns into a touching one, and an example of the way the movie retains its heart amid the general lunacy.
Epitomizing this notion is Steve Carell, whose performance as Olive and Dwayne’s gay uncle Frank, the country’s “foremost Proust scholar” who recently attempted suicide, is… well, nothing like his now notorious performance as The 40 Year-Old Virgin, which I guess is going to be the natural point of comparison for a little while. The character is not a goofball, but you can sense the playfulness under the sadness; the way he bickers with Richard, who replies with gems like “sarcasm is the refuge of losers,” is clever and deeply satisfying. Along with the somewhat more eccentric Dwayne, Frank is the most easily sympathetic character here, and Carell’s decidedly unclownish turn makes him our primary gateway into the film.
The last act is a spot-on send-up of kids’ beauty pageants, a portrayal both proximate to reality and one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris go to town, adding a hilariously unhinged emcee (“America! It’s so beautiful!” he sings), an almost dystopian backstage, and an audience of parents that is roughly my worst nightmare (shades of Arrested Development once again), all the while making it clear that Olive is by far the prettiest, most charming girl in the bunch by virtue of being herself.
Richard’s transformation from maniacal self-help guru to loyal father is too swift, but the rest of the characterization is strong. Dwayne’s bond with his sister feels real, as does Frank’s sadness. Little Miss Sunshine puts the characters through a lot of improbable comic ordeals, such as sneaking a dead body out of a hospital and keeping it concealed in the back of a constantly honking van, but I was happy to go along. Crazy Richard aside, I really liked these people.